The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

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Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

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Toronto Fringe: Calling out manipulative sales in the quirky, edgy, razor sharp Everyone Wants A T-Shirt!

Brittany Miranda, John Wamsley, Charlin McIsaac & Madeleine Brown. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Has a slogan or statement on a product ever made you want to change your life?

Prairie Fire, Please explores the impact of—and calls bullshit on—corporate manipulation of our heart strings in Madeleine Brown’s Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! Directed by Aaron Jan, assisted by Anthony Tran, the satirical, thought-provoking piece is running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace for Toronto Fringe.

Beatrice Little (Brittany Miranda) and her partner (John Wamsley) need funding to grow Potatogram, their innovative, new messaging business. When Bea’s pitch is turned down by a local shopping mall business maven (Charlin McIsaac), a chance meeting with a former university classmate (Madeleine Brown) offers an opportunity to earn some money in a hot new business: selling products emblazoned with the statement “Women Rule The World”.

Faced with unfriendly responses to her sales pitches, zero sales and competition from a fiercely ambitious colleague (Wamsley), Bea realizes that selling t-shirts isn’t as easy as she thought and finds herself manipulating women so she can meet her weekly sales quota. And what’s that mystery influencer dude on the scooter (Wamsley) up to?

Edgy, quirky and insightful, Brown’s intelligent, darkly funny script plays devil’s advocate on the pyramid scheme sales model, manipulative sales relationships and commercialized feminism; and calls out systemic racism-induced barriers and the cult of celebrity. The sharp, entertaining cast is more than up for the challenge, with Brown, McIsaac and Wamsley shifting deftly between multiple hilarious characters; and Miranda juggling Bea’s journey through the insanely competitive world of the independent retailer (IR), all while trying to keep her primary partnership and business alive. As Bea confronts the dishonesty of it all, she’s got some serious prioritizing and hard choices ahead of her. Can a slogan on a t-shirt be the catalyst for real change—or is it just a way for some corporate entity to make money off our hopes and dreams?

Everyone Wants A T-Shirt! continues in the TPM Backspace until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times. These guys are selling out—including last night’s 10 p.m. performance—plus it’s an intimate space, so booking ahead is a really good idea.

Toronto Fringe: Unapologetically unapologetic in the hilarious, sharp Madeleine Says Sorry

Prairie Fire, Please presents an absurd, satirical debate on something we Canadians are famous for: saying “Sorry.” Directed by Aaron Jan, Madeleine Brown’s Madeleine Says Sorry is currently running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace as part of Toronto Fringe.

Struggling actor Madeleine (Madeleine Brown) takes professional resentment too far when she kidnaps a dog, then nearly kills it. Now under house arrest, she must attend a session at a special clinic, where Tony (Anthony Perpuse) will coach, craft and assess her apology to the wronged canine.

Hilarity ensues when things don’t go as Tony planned—and a battle of wits gets physical.

Brown and Perpuse are perfectly matched for this rapid-fire, often self-deprecating and satirical trip. Brown’s Madeleine is delightfully unashamed and entitled in her single-mindedness; self-absorbed and lacking in empathy, with her lizard brain ruling her actions. As Tony, Perpuse is hilariously type-A and anal; a reformed bad boy turned scientist entrepreneur clinician, he’s also a super enthusiastic fanboy of David Suzuki.

Can empathy be learned? Can science measure the sincerity of an apology? And can public apologies truly be genuine? One thing’s for certain; that’s the biggest David Suzuki head shot you’ve ever seen.

Unapologetically unapologetic; sorry seems to be the hardest word in the hilarious, sharp Madeleine Says Sorry.

Madeleine Says Sorry continues in the TPM Backspace until July 16; check here for dates/times and advance tickets.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan

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Bria McLaughlin & Michelle Chiu in Swan – photos by Cesar Ghisilieri

Finish what you start.

Little Black Afro Theatre joins forces with Filament Incubator for a production of Aaron Jan’s Swan, directed by Jan and dramaturged by Lucy Powis; and opening last night to a packed house in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

As we enter the theatre and settle into our seats, the playing space (Aram Heydarian, who designed the costumes), sound (Kevin Feliciano) and foggy, atmospheric lighting (Samuel Chang) aptly set the tone for this disturbing tale of violence. Three piles of feathers line the apron. Centre stage is a wooden deck-like structure – and above it, a murder of black birds hangs like a menacing Hitchcockian mobile. Underneath the hum of chatting audience members, you can hear the gentle sound of lapping water and birds.

Returning home to Hamilton after a 10-year absence, writer Joey (Bria McLaughlin) is on a mission. Ten years ago, the night of her high school prom, an injured swan was brutally killed and dismembered at Cootes Paradise (a wetland on the west side of Hamilton Harbour), and the perpetrator was never found. She and a group of friends had tried to solve the mystery back then, but came up empty and gave up.

Despite her older sister Bill’s (Michelle Chiu) skepticism, Joey gets the gang back together in an awkward sort of reunion. Once a tight group of lesbian friends, they formed an environmental group at their now decommissioned, abandonned school in an effort to affect positive change in their city: Rachel (Isabel Kanaan), Piper (Christine Nguyen) and Ron (Angela Sun). The fifth member of the group, Jenna Lynn (Marina Moreira) went missing the night of the prom. And the papers made a bigger deal about the swan.

A horrific trail of clues – photographs of their local hang-outs, each one accompanied by growing numbers of bird carcasses – leads them around the city as they hunt for the swan killer. As they grow weary of their fruitless efforts, suspicion arises. Is the killer among them? Loyalties come into question as memories of some ugly interactions emerge, including Jenna Lynn’s expulsion from the group. All is revealed in the disturbing ending, as mystery turns supernatural.

Excellent work from this cast of women in this spooky, quick-paced tale of otherness and search for the truth. As Joey, McLaughlin is a born leader; an inspiring, determined and cunning negotiator with a lot of smarts and a quick wit, Joey has struggled through her own life-changing injury and has made a modest name for herself as a writer. As Joey’s big sis Bill, Chiu brings a nice combination of cynicism and wariness; Bill thinks Joey and her friends are nuts for trying to solve this case, but she’s also concerned for her sister’s welfare and longs to build a brighter future for what’s left of their family.

Kanaan gives Rachel a great sense of inner conflict; once the class over-achiever, type-A Rachel is in a rut. Ten years after high school, she’s still working as a lifeguard at the local rec centre – and re-opening the case of the murdered swan has sparked her dulled ambition. Nguyen’s Piper is a quirky delight; a lanky athlete with a huge appetite. The peacemaker of the group, she just wants everyone to chill and get along.

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Angela Sun, Isabel Kanaan & Christine Nguyen in Swan

As Ron, Sun is the hasbien of the group, who went on to a traditional, “respectable” heterosexual marriage complete with kids and church activities. Sun gives her some deep tones, though; as we learn that Ron is good at keeping secrets and forgetting things, as well as putting up with some clueless everyday racism – dressed up as cultural interest – from her husband. Moreira’s Jenna Lynn is a lovely combination of bashful and forceful; coming late into the group, it’s Jenna Lynn who takes them in a more effective direction as they comb the community page of the Spec (the Hamilton Spectator) for local problems to solve.

All are outsiders by virtue of their ethnicity, colour and/or sexuality. An all are adrift in lives interupted; seeking identity, and a sense of belonging and purpose. Like the characters in Jan’s Rowing, there’s a feeling of being trapped in a city that doesn’t want them and has nothing for them – even as they struggle to make the best of it and make something of themselves. If they could just solve this mystery, things will turn around for them. And, like it’s sister play Tire Swing, Swan is a dark tale of memory, traumatic experience and mystery.

Former high school pals reunite to solve an old, gruesome mystery in the dark, macabre, thoughtful Swan.

Swan continues in the TPM Backspace till Nov 13; get your tix online or call 416-504-7529. Please note the 7:30 curtain time for evening performances.

Toronto Fringe: Biting social & immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath

_mg_8896_1280x853 silk bath

The Silk Bath Collective gives us a scathing, darkly funny and deeply moving send-up of western society and its biases toward Asian immigrants in Silk Bath. Co-written by director Aaron Jan, producer Gloria Mok and performer Bessie Cheng, the show is currently running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace during Toronto Fringe.

Set as a bizarre reality TV show where contestants are held in cells, new immigrants compete for social acceptance in their new country through a series of physical and verbal tests, where they gain points for giving the correct Western response and dominating in martial arts bouts. The dialogue is delivered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with projected surtitles.

When we first enter the theatre, we see three contestants already onstage, each seated on a mat with a metal bucket. Clementine (Dorcas Chiu), who careful tends her clementine tree; Mutt (En Lai Mah) looks after his sore knee; and the Old Lady (Amanda Zhou) sits up centre, lost in her thoughts as she wrings out a tea towel. A new arrival appears as the action commences: New Girl (Bessie Cheng) wide-eyed and eager to learn. We soon learn that each has an agenda of his/her own in addition to winning the prize.

Lovely work from the cast in this physical and emotional piece. Chiu gives Clementine a strong but wary nurturing quality, combined with a sense of natural leadership; seeking to make alliances, her way is to band together to find a way out. As Mutt, Mah gives us a man of masks; although Mah harbours a bitter and cynical attitude, he knows how to play the game and give the answers he knows the judges want to hear and he’s not above sabotage to gain points. Zhou brings a solitary dignity to Old Lady; a veteran contestant determined to win by ongoing analysis and stamina, she longs to be reunited with her love after a long separation. Cheng’s New Girl is a bright and feisty underdog; learning the ropes of this new and strange place, she is driven to succeed, and keeps a positive and hopeful attitude despite her confusion and nervousness. All want out of this place – and we find out how far each is willing to go in order to gain freedom.

With shouts to the design team: Aram Heydarian (set/costumes), Kevin Feliciano (projection/sound) and Logan Cracknell (lighting) for their inventive and evocative work to create this world.

Biting social and immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath.

Silk Bath continues at the Tarragon Mainspace, with only two more performances: today (Fri, July 8) at 4:15 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 8:00 p.m.; highly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

p.s.: Because he’s crazy (his word, not mine), playwright/director Aaron Jan has another show in Fringe this year: Rowing, playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. I saw it in October 2015 and highly recommend it.

 

Toronto Fringe preview(ish): Rowing

Toronto Fringe 2016 opens today!

There are a couple of shows that I’ve seen previous productions of, and that I won’t be seeing during Fringe, but I wanted to shout them out.

dsc_6684_1280x853 rowingI saw Aaron Jan’s raw and darkly funny coming of age tale Rowing in October 2015 at The Fort Studios. The Chrysalis Workshop’s Fringe production of Rowing is playing at a site-specific venue: Kensington Conference Centre (56C Kensington Avenue). Strongly recommended.

The Toronto Fringe Festival runs until July 10. Check out the Fringe website for ticket and pass info/advance purchase.

 

Boys to men in raw, darkly funny & thoughtful look at losing, friendship & fundraising in Rowing

Courtney Keir, Madeleine Brown & Andrew Markowiak in Rowing - photo by Jordan Laffrenier
Courtney Keir, Madeleine Brown & Andrew Markowiak in Rowing – photo by Jordan Laffrenier

Went to a new, alternative rehearsal/performance venue last night to see the opening of Then They Fight’s production of Aaron Jan’s Rowing (directed by Jan) last night at The Fort Studios (1425 Yonge St.).

Despondent, enraged, frustrated and humiliated over a loss, the four young men of the Westdale rowing team sit in their shared hotel room in St. Catharines, solitary and silent. Rock music plays and a banner droops on the wall. All the beer and Springsteen in the world cannot soothe their collective and individual agony. What was to be a post-Henley race celebration/birthday party and Heart & Stroke fundraising event has become a poorly attended wake for the team – and their lives. And as the questions, blame and anger swirl, destruction and chaos ensue.

Really nice work from the cast in this exploration of manhood and success. Crew captain Mark (Zach Parkhurst) is explosive in his rage, mortified that he and the team have failed to continue his proud family legacy and shaming his inherited position on the team – and he’s broiling with thoughts of revenge. The oldest member of the crew, Howie (Drew O’Hara) is about to age out at 26, and has been holding out huge hopes that his five years of blood, sweat and tears on the team would amount to something; the good looking one on the crew, he’s pissed off big time – horny, drunk and looking for some consolation release as he paces the room like a caged animal. The small, home-schooled and child-like Jake (Madeleine Brown) is the crew’s birthday boy; a timid, curious and bright introvert, he’s desperate for his father’s pride and approval as he undertakes a fundraising drive to save the local HSF branch that his father runs. Trying to keep it all together is coxswain Rick (Andrew Markowiak), recently dumped by his girlfriend Clara (Courtney Keir, who brings a driven, grown-up and proactive quality), who’s left him for an older, more mature guy; he’s lost, desperate and out to prove his maturity to win her back.

Add to the mix former crew mate Chris (Lauren Griffiths), a ballsy, brave and direct – sometimes brutally – young woman who moved to Toronto and joined a rival team, but whose heart draws her back to the Westdale crew; and Wyatt (Francois MacDonald), the icy tough, street smart leader of a Toronto crew of young offenders who has a serious beef with Westdale – and the Westdale team must get their shit together, make some choices and take action.

The four Westdale crew mates are each struggling in his own way with preconceived notions of adulthood, success and what it means to be – and what constitutes – a man. The Hamilton they live in is so different than the Hamilton their well-off parents knew – a depressed economy and a downtown core that’s become a ghost town, there is not a lot of hope to be had in their environment. Friendship and loyalties are put to the test – and all are faced with the choice to continue on their present course or turn it around for the better.

Boys to men in this raw, darkly funny and thoughtful look at losing, friendship and fundraising in Rowing.

Rowing continues at The Fort until Oct 17; it’s an intimate space with limited seating, so advance booking strongly recommended (also see the tix link for exact dates/times).

Please note: Although The Fort’s address is 1425 Yonge St. (Yonge/St. Clair E.), the entrance is on St. Clair E., on the south side, between the McDonald’s and 1 St. Clair E. – look out for the signs and the peeps with the oars who will be happy to guide you along your way.